Out Of The Junkyard
Showdown Coming Soon On New Arena
By Guy Junker
I'm going to call it 66 Center, the name of the Penguins' new arena. I have this vision of the 2007 Stanley Cup finals christening it. And why not? There is precedent in this town for teams playing well in new facilities. The Pirates won the World Series in 1909, their first year playing at Forbes Field. They won the Series again in 1971, their first FULL year at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers made it to the AFC Championship game in their first season at Heinz Field. We'll ignore PNC Park for the moment because it ruins my theory.
After the Penguins traded Alexei Kovalev to the New York Rangers last month, the most significant utterance came from Mario Lemieux. The man who measures his words so carefully said, "Without a new arena, we can't stay here." We've all known that for awhile, but the Kovy trade made it painful reality. So what are the chances of it happening?
In a nutshell, most of the key people want to see a new arena built, but nobody wants to pay for it. That is always the story with projects of this type. Clearly, the Penguins have a more uphill battle than the Pirates and Steelers did. When PNC Park and Heinz Field were funded, the economy was blazing. There was more RAD money available. But even then, Plan-B, which allowed those two facilities to be built, was wildly unpopular with much of the voting public.
Still, there is support in Harrisburg. Last year, the House and Senate approved overwhelmingly $90 million in the capital budget for the arena project. But as Tom Rooney, the Penguins' head of business operations, explains, "Projects in the capital budget are not guaranteed to get state money. Only the governor can authorize the release of it for individual deals." The problem there is a projected $2 billion budget deficit for the state. New Governor Ed Rendell is for the idea in general, but projects of this type will be under more scrutiny than usual due to the economy.
Locally, Mayor Tom Murphy and Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey offer support but not much cash. Their most important role though could be lobbying Rendell to release the $90 million. The opinion of local officials weighs more heavily in Harrisburg than any pleas from the hockey organization itself, and Lemieux's group has spent the past few months talking with Murphy and Roddey to organize their plan.
The last concrete action taken in the process came last summer when the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Allegheny County (SEA) presented the Penguins with a financing proposal for the new building as per their initial agreement when Lemieux's group took over ownership. The Penguins have never officially responded to the deal, but it's clear it's not acceptable. It called for over $108 million to come from private sources, including the Penguins. Ken Sawyer, the team's chief financial officer, says it won't work. "It calls for too much private money. It doesn't solve our problems." He says the Penguins need more public money and emphasized they can't wait. Sawyer also points out one of the few positives in the economy right nowólow interest rates, and in that sense, it's a great time to build.
But it's a hard sell based not just on the estimated $270 million total cost, but on the current state of the NHL. Ottawa and Buffalo filed for bankruptcy. Plenty of others are losing money. Attendance and TV ratings are down. When the collective bargaining agreement expires after next season, there could be a stoppage in play while owners try to install a salary cap. If plans for a new building are put on hold until the league straightens itself out, it may be too late to save the Penguins.
When Rendell was in Pittsburgh last month, he told local leaders to submit proposals by mid-May for economic developement projects. Rooney says he expects things to reach a boiling point in the spring and summer. Stay tuned. At 42 years, Mellon Arena is the oldest building in the NHL and needs to be replaced. But it's not just a matter of luxury suites for hockey. It's about a better entertainment facility that will be used many more days for a more diverse group of events than Heinz Field and PNC Park put together. Perhaps Stephen Leeper put it best. The executive director of the SEA said, "This is not a Penguins issue, this is a Pittsburgh issue."
And somehow, don't we usually find a way?
Guy Junker is co-host of Sports Beat and the 11 p.m. Regional Sports Report with Fox Sports Pittsburgh.